Land in Accra: a clash between tradition and the modern city

Despite Accra’s modern features, traditional rule and authority play a key role in directing how the city grows and what form that growth takes. Under customary law, family heads and council elders hold land rights on behalf of communities. Chiefs are also very powerful by virtue of their land ownership. In Accra, powerful traditional authorities, such as the La and Ga traditional councils, own large tracts of land. But persistent commercialization of land and rapid urban growth is challenging communal land practices, and the difficulty developers face in acquiring land is exacerbating the city’s housing problem.

Data on how much land in the city is actually owned communally is not readily available and difficult to ascertain, unless at the point of purchase. The existing framework makes it difficult for developers to acquire land. To do so they have to go through a mix of formal and informal processes. An interview with a top real–estate developer in the city reveals that acquiring large land parcels is no easy task and one must have connections to chiefs (as they are the custodians of land) and good negotiation skills. Once the ice has been broken with the chiefs, acquiring land seems easier. But the main concern with acquiring land through chiefs is getting a land title that reflects the buyer’s details without any petitions from the community. This has contributed to Accra being among the regions with the largest number of land disputes in the country (Wehrmman, 2008).

Impact of communal land ownership on urban development

Tracing the conflict between traditional customary law and private land ownership, Quarcoopome (1992) notes that firms and private individuals drove up the value for land, leading to a distortion of the land market.

The current land administration system coupled with the increasingly high demand for housing in the city is a major contributing factor to the land deficiency for housing development in Accra. A 2014 thesis study found that the unavailability for land for mass housing construction remains the single most important obstacle for housing in the urban areas of Accra. This can be seen in Accra’s prime residential areas where expensive townhouses are crammed onto small pieces of land. Most developers in the city resort to developing high-end properties on small parcels of land in order to maximize returns. At the same time, many urban dwellers have been forced to move to the peri-urban areas of Accra, which are more affordable.

In Accra, land disputes between chiefs, companies and private individuals have negatively affected urban development. The demand for land has led to corrupt practices amongst buyers and chiefs, with large parcels of land being sold for lower than the market value, an insider from a community that owns vast amounts of land in Accra told me.

A member of a foreign real estate development company explained that the company went through lengthy negotiations in 2013 with chiefs for a large parcel of land at a very low price in the heart of the city. Today, the company is still waiting to receive its land title.

Reforming the land sector

The land tenure system in Ghana has been an impediment to the country’s socio-economic development but the deep respect for traditional authorities and chieftaincies makes it difficult for a progressive land reform process. In a June 2015 newspaper article published by Modern Ghana, President John Dramani Mahama called on chiefs and landlords to facilitate the allocation of land for development projects. He added that the country’s bad land tenure system has led to multiple sales of land, which has deterred investors and development, and needed to shift to enable an environment more conducive to business.

There have been various attempts towards land reform but these have not proved successful. For example, traditional rulers and other stakeholders have been urged to support the establishment of customary land secretariats at the local level. Supporters of the land reform process argue that if managed well proper records of land will be kept in order to prevent multiple sale of the same piece of land to two or more persons. Furthermore, revenues will be realized and can be used for developmental activities at the local level. Despite such initiatives, land squabbles persevere.

Doing away with the customary land tenure system would be a dent to the cultural, historical and political foundations of the Ghanaian people. But it is evident that reform is required. Currently, the Ministry of Land and Natural Resources is implementing LAP- 2 (Land Administration Project), which is the second phase of the long-term project to reform the land sector. This phase is focused on policy implementation and aimed at putting in place effective and efficient land administration processes in the country. Reforms would ensure that there is first and foremost legal harmony between the customary land tenure and statutory land tenures systems. More so reforms with regard to land administration would ensure litigation free land for investors. If this were done, more investors particularly those in the real estate sector would be able to meet the middle class housing deficit in the city, providing quality affordable homes to the burgeoning urban population.

Photo: Accra, Ghana, via Flickr user Mike Norton.

Jane Lumumba is an urban practitioner and PhD candidate in Public Administration and Public Policy based in Accra, Ghana. She is currently a consultant at the Commonwealth Local Government Forum working in the fields of local economic development in West Africa.

  1. S ( 1992) Urbanization, Land Alienation and Politics in Accra, Research Review Vol. 8:2
  2. C (2014) Land tenure systems and their effects on mass housing development in Ghana– A Case of Accra
  3. B (2008) Land Conflicts- A Practical Guide to Dealing With Land Conflicts GTZ Land Management
  4. ‘President Mahama calls for release of land for development.’ Modern Ghana. June 4, 2015. Online


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